Tough love in the bush

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 Orphan Love
Nadia Bozak's first novel is not your average labour of love story

In her first novel, Orphan Love, Nadia Bozak writes the ultimate reverse frontier story, and it is a thing to cheer. Unlike those in the standard road novel, Bozak's characters travel primarily by river in a garbage-salvaged canoe that is leaking all the way. Rather than leaving civilization to seek the wilderness, and a place where two outsiders can simply exist, Bozak's two heroes are fleeing the frontier, bound for civilization itself: New York City. Every sentence sings with nature, human and otherwise, northern Ontario, a sense of waiting and hard, whittled disappointment. But disappointing is the one thing this debut isn't. Bozak manages to present a seldom-seen, dirt-poor and blood-rich postcard of Ontario, and scrawled across its back is the year: 1989.

Stealing her own name for her lead character, the author paints a tough, self-reared girl named Bozak into a Twin Peaks-like town, the fictional Black Dew Seat, somewhere close to Timmins. Abandoned by her mother, rescued from a no-good father by her drunken Uncle Bellyache, Bozak first appears as a child, in the dark. Pickles, a friend of the family, crawls in to sleep off his hangover on the floor in her trailer. Pickles — an Indian in Black Dew Seat-speak — is about the closest thing to a father Bozak will ever know.

Speed ahead a page and several years, and we meet Pickles again, in a bar where the now-teenage Bozak has no business being, nursing a coffee and waiting for her older boyfriend, whom she's been forbidden to see on the basis of his last name: O'Right.

According to both Uncle Bellyache and Pickles, the O'Rights couldn't be more wrong. They're a gang of roving show-offs and petty criminals. It makes perfect sense that a punk-rock-listening, Black Flag T-shirt-sporting teenage girl would be attracted to this kind of trouble. O'Right imports culture from Ottawa in the form of precious mix tapes, and he has wheels.

Bozak is brutally beaten by her uncle for sleeping with O'Right, and informed of a humiliating secret about O'Right that is kept hidden from the reader for most of the book. She sets off through the night with the intention of murdering her boyfriend.

Discovering Pickles's body, apparently the victim of a hit-and-run accident, she stops to bury him with her bare hands. Bozak is still determined to hoof it to Ottawa in search of O'Right, with whom she has a score or two to settle. "Sleeping only when my body gave in, laid out stiff as a corpse under the bushes, under the moon froze to blue, under the star-soaking sky of northern Ontario. Four nights, five mornings and days of the same, and I came to be as damp and mouldy as if I'd just come back from my own black grave."

When Bozak meets Dave Bashed-up-Boat, as she calls him, her luck changes. She secures a ride in his canoe, though definitely not an easy one. "Went on and on and then when we could go on no more, we pulled over and fell onto our knotted, clotted boned-up knees." They are an odd team: He is metal; she is punk. Two damned souls: Dave wears Rotting Christ across his chest; Bozak, the Goddamns across her back. They stereotype one another by their skin and by their chosen identifiers. "Dave I'm-Not-Indian. That's the kind of Indian you are," she tells him.

There's much room for humour here, and occasionally the author allows it to emerge, subverting the stereotypes. But often she sets the characters to dwell in their own grimness — abused, neglected and literally with nothing but the shirts they wear.

Together, their goal is to take Pickles's boots to New York City, where they will bury them in Central Park. With his boots stapled to the bow of the canoe, the dead man becomes their ornament and guide as they portage the Champlain Trail Lakes and the Hudson. Someplace between picaresque and noir, they fight all humans they come across, and occasionally each other — in addition to the land, the water and the rain.

Thick with violence, occasionally morbid, the novel nonetheless remains engrossing, the characters as likeable as they are messed up. As a whole, and on its own terms, Orphan Love succeeds. As unwavering as her character, Bozak is especially adept at building tension, giving the readers quick-hitting descriptions that make even the smell of urinal pucks exotic, and documenting the refuse of civilization as it comes ever closer. This may be one of the toughest love stories to come out of the bush. It is certainly the least washed.—Emily Schultz

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